"Another speaker asked [Thomas] Hampson's thoughts on performing this
repertoire [Das Lied von der Erde--MF] in a language other than German.
Hampson said he had recently received a proposal to do Winterreise in
English. "It's a noble attempt," he said, " but I would say absolutely,
unequivocally, unchangeably, No." I wrote the above in November 2003
after a post-concert discussion between Hampson, tenor Donald Litaker,
Leonard Slatkin, and audience members. The thrust of Hampson's argument
was that Schubert had composed the songs with the sound of German in his
head; to do it in any other language would do violence to the music.
I am currently listening to Schubert's "A Winter Journey," by Jeffrey
Benton, baritone, and Rona Lowe, piano, Symposium Records 1118. Listening
in sick fascination, that is.
Winterreise is cruel. Not only does the traveler become more and more
deranged, but the singer has nowhere to hide. I heard several intonation
issues. Take the first song, "Good Night." It has been pointed out that
the first note of the cycle doubly states the traveler's alienation: not
only is his journey starting at night rather than in daylight, but that
first note is in a baritone's highest range.
Benton hits the first one okay, but the second one is flat. And so are
many others, I find.
Here's an idea of the translation (first stanza of Good Night; sing along
to get the full effect; I know all readers here know the tune):
I came here as a stranger
A stranger I depart
I came when May was blossoming
And joy was in my heart.
I met a girl who spoke of love
Our wedding day was planned
The mother gave her blessing
I soon would take her hand.
See what I mean by sick fascination? It rhymes, it adheres roughly to
the original, yet the meter or syntax or something makes it too sing-songy.
And a crucial thing is missed. While Benton sings of *the* mother, he
talks only about *a* girl. In the original, it's Das Maedchen spracht
von Liebe, die Mutter var von Eh': "The girl spoke of love, the mother
even of marriage." Schubert/Mueller's jilted lover views them as objects,
not as people. This does not happen in Winter Journey.
Cut to "The Weather Vane":
The wind is playing with the weather vane
over the house where my sweetheart lives.
And so it seems my confusion
It hisses and mocks this fugitive.
If I had noticed the warnings sooner
and heeded the sign of the weather vane
Then I would never have sown the love
of the faithless woman who caused this pain.
Now this was kind of clever, but look at what is lost. Where Schubert
ends the first sentence above on the word "haus," Benton finishes on
"lives:" you just can't open your mouth on "lives" and "fugitive," whereas
Schubert's German singer has "haus" and "aus." The German to me sounds
full-throated, the English constricted. High marks to Benton, though,
for trying to do something with Fluechtling, "fugitive."
Another example where not singing in German hurts comes in "By the Stream"
("Auf Dem Flusse"). To get the full impact of this, I recommend
Fischer-Dieskau. When he sings, "Mit harter, starrer Rinde," the aural
impact of all those R's is overwhelming. Benton, speaking to a river,
is stuck with "You are no longer rushing." The difference is that instead
of Germanic, guttural R's, the stress falls on the characterless "ru"
in "rushing," and that the "ing" takes too long to resolve. Incidentally,
Benton and Lowe take this song *much* slower than any version I have.
Maybe that's on purpose, as he does sing "You are no longer rushing."
Now "The Crow," a song that I thought worked really well.
I was followed by a crow
from the village trailing
All day flying to and fro
round my head still sailing.
Crow, fascinating crow
endlessly you tease me
Thinking of the prey below
Watching when to seize me.
Now I have not far to go
Carry me no more, my stave
Crow, oh crow, then show to me
Faith until the grave.
Crow, oh crow, then show to me
Faith until the grave.
Benton is forced to carry "grave" too far in both cases. However, this
is frightening imagery, carried off well. Because of the many repeated
"o's," I would have been tempted to try "Crow, fascinating bird," just
to change the vowel sounds.
Another song I thought worked well, possibly the best, was the last one,
"The Organ Grinder."
Just behind the town an organ grinder stands
and he turns the handle with his frozen hands.
Barefoot in the snow he shuffles on his way
Not a single penny in his empty tray.
No one wants to hear him
No one looks his way
Doves are snarling round him
No heed does he pay.
But he lets it happen as he always will
He just goes on turning, never is he still.
Curious old fellow, shall I go along?
Will you grind your organ only to my song?
Well. Benton and Lowe win the Best Effort in a Losing Cause competition
by a mile. As fascinated as I am by languages and Winterreise, I have
to say that this performance, even though I will listen to it again,
does not work for me. I get the feeling that this disc was made on a
shoestring, one take for each song was all they could afford. What other
explanation is there for the clanger of a wrong note at 0:13 of The
Stormy Morning? This, in a song that lasts less than a minute. Other
than that, Rona Lowe accompanied well.
Running 79:31, this was a very long performance. Other times available
are Goerne/Brendel, 75:32; Fassbaender/Reimann, 69:31; DFD/Demus, 71:22;
Elsner/Henschel Quartett, 68:45 (the string quartet version is another
one that didn't work well for me); Hotter/Moore, 75:04; Pregardien/Staier,
73:57; and Schreier/Schiff, 72:20. I know there are repeats in places,
but Benton/Lowe were not only longer, they were noticeably slower in
many of the songs.
Weirdly enough for such a labor of love -- Benton did the translations
himself -- there is no libretto. But as you can see from the several
quotes above, his diction is very good.
My next Winterreise will have to be Fassbaender or DFD, if only to get
the language right.